Grading policy change marks further progress

After four years, Princeton's new grading policy continues to show progress in bringing grades in undergraduate courses under better control.

Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel reported at the Sept. 15 faculty meeting that the policy, adopted by the faculty in April 2004, has led to significant advances toward curbing grade inflation across the University. The policy sets an institution-wide expectation for the percentage of grades in the A range and provides clear guidelines on the meaning of letter grades.

In a statement issued at the meeting, members of the Faculty Committee on Grading said, "The Princeton faculty has now demonstrated conclusively that with clear intent and concerted effort, a university faculty can bring down the inflated grades that -- left uncontrolled -- devalue the educational achievements of American college students. The Princeton faculty is working successfully to restore educational content and meaning to the letter grades earned by the highest-achieving students in the United States."

The policy sets a common grading standard for every academic department and program, in which A's are to account for less than 35 percent of the grades for undergraduate courses and less than 55 percent of grades for junior and senior independent work. The standard by which the grading record of each department or program is evaluated is the percentage of A's given over the previous three years.

In the period from fall 2005 through spring 2008, the most recent three-year period under the new grading policy, A's (A+, A, A-) accounted for 40.4 percent of grades in undergraduate courses, down from 47.0 percent in 2001-04, the three years before the faculty adopted the policy. It also marks slight progress from the results reported a year ago, when A's accounted for 40.6 percent of undergraduate grades in the 2004-07 period.

In humanities departments, A's accounted for 45.5 percent of the grades in undergraduate courses in 2005-08, down from 55.6 percent in 2001-04. In the social sciences, there were 37.4 percent A grades in 2005-08, down from 43.3 percent in 2001-04. In the natural sciences, there were 35.3 percent A grades in 2005-08, compared to 37.2 percent in 2001-04. In engineering, the figures were 41.9 percent A's in 2005-08, down from 50.2 percent in 2001-04.

In their statement, the committee members "noted the remarkable success of many departments in bringing their grades down, but observed also that there continues to be considerable variance in departmental outcomes." For example, in comparing single-year grades from 2007-08 to those from five years earlier, in 2002-03, 13 departments reduced their percentage of A grades by 15 to 29 percent, six departments achieved reductions of 8 to 12 percent and eight departments that were already in essential compliance with the policy maintained their performance.

A small number of departments either have not shown progress in reducing grades or have seen grades creep higher after initially coming down following the implementation of the grading policy. "The committee will be working closely with those departments in the months ahead to devise specific strategies for turning these situations around," the statement said.
Overall, the committee members reiterated their "confidence in the educational benefits of the faculty's successful effort to bring grades under better control." The committee also noted that efforts to bring grades under control have not hindered Princeton students in terms of finding jobs or getting into graduate and professional schools. Detailed data about employment and postgraduate admissions will be distributed to all faculty, undergraduates and undergraduate parents later this month in a pamphlet titled Grading at Princeton: Frequently Asked Questions.